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Eleanor Ross Taylor, Gaining Poetic Acclaim at 90

Her Southern voice and observations about women draw a $100,000 prize

Eleanor Ross Taylor

Eleanor Ross Taylor today. — David Peterson

At the end of a long career, Eleanor Ross Taylor is just now gaining recognition. The 90-year-old poet offers a distinctive Southern voice and vivid insights into the "underground life" of women.

In April, Taylor was awarded the 2010 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize for lifetime achievement for her sixth book, Captive Voices: New and Selected Poems, 1960-2008. The prestigious award, which carries a $100,000 prize, is bringing attention to Taylor, whose work is largely unknown outside a small circle of friends and other poets. Most of her poetry has been out of print for years.

Her son, Ross Taylor, a poet and fiction writer from Falls Church, Va., says his mother's work reflects her world of rural Norwood, N.C., where she grew up on a farm. Her poems also speak to her life as a wife and mother of two (her daughter, Katherine, is now deceased). A local newspaper published her first poem when she was 9, and she wrote poetry well into her 80s.

"She writes about specific life, and her specific life is having a background in the rural South," Ross Taylor says. "One of her trademarks is the odd use of language, making up her own words, some of them coming from dialect or regional speech."

Many years ago, the poet Adrienne Rich wrote that Taylor's work speaks of "the underground life of women, the Southern white Protestant woman in particular, the woman-writer, the woman in the family, coping, hoarding, preserving, observing, keeping up appearances, seeing through the myths and hypocrisies, nursing the sick, conspiring with sister-women, possessed of a will to survive and to see others."

Taylor no longer gives interviews. Her memory and energy are fading, her son says, and she is no longer writing. She recently moved to Falls Church, a mile from her son and his family.

No self-promoter

A 1942 graduate of the Woman's College, now the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Taylor lived for many years in Charlottesville, Va., where her husband, the late Peter Taylor, taught writing and was part of a loosely knit group of Southern writers. She was always reclusive, her son says, and lived in the shadow of her more famous and gregarious husband, who wrote about the urban South and won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1987 (A Summons to Memphis).

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